Seattle has been among the top five fastest-growing cities for the last several years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Our economy, job market, and housing market all have strong growth–so does our homeless problem. Last November, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a civil state of emergency over Seattle’s growing homelessness crisis.
The most publicized current issue with homelessness has been the sweeping of a stretch of homeless encampments under I-5, known as The Jungle. At The Sentinel, we believe that the sweep was an unnecessarily harsh step in the right direction.
The Jungle has been in existence for several decades with the violent crime and unsafe conditions consistently growing. The Seattle Police Department has responded to more than 70 violent incidents in The Jungle over the past five years.
Despite the challenging conditions, The Jungle is the only place many people have to go. The over 200 campsites set up in the East Duwamish Greenbelt under I-5 provide a community and shelter to about 400 homeless people who struggle with addiction, mental illnesses, poverty, or criminal backgrounds, and don’t have a place to stay. While many inhabitants of The Jungle would welcome an alternative place to live, some prefer The Jungle because they feel more comfortable there.
The danger of The Jungle, however, reached a climax this January when three teenagers entered the camp looking to steal drugs. The teens shot two dead and wounded three others.
After the incident, the city of Seattle did a conditions assessment of the area and decided it was “dangerous and unsanitary” and that the area poorly impacting the environment.
The city decided the best course of action was to clear The Jungle and then clean the area and improve accessibility for the Washington State Department of Transportation service vehicles. Many of the homeless inhabitants were moved to an alternate camp on Airport Way South and provided with dumpsters and portable restrooms. Others found different places to temporarily camp and while some resisted the move.
The city did an initial cleaning sweep on October 11. During the sweep, violence erupted when police fatally shot one man while trying to break up a knife fight between two men who hadn’t vacated the area.
While most recognize the Jungle as a problem, the city’s decision to sweep it has been met with mixed reactions.
Nobody wants The Jungle to threaten the lives and property of hundreds of people, but at the same time, nobody wants societal outcasts in need wandering the city. While the violence and poor sanitation in The Jungle needs to be dealt with, it is unnecessary to upset an entire community of people who need help when there are few viable places for them to go.
At the end of January this year, King County did it’s annual One Night Count which totaled over 4,500 homeless in the King County area, which is likely an under-representation of the actual number of homeless people. This was a 19 percent increase from January 2015 and this number is likely to continue growing as more people move to Seattle.
Our weather is going to get warmer with time, and as the southern states heat up by over a degree per decade, along with the people coming for our tech industries, we can expect Seattle’s population to grow in upcoming years. An increased population means increased homelessness, especially as housing prices rise for limited Seattle property. We need to deal with the homeless problem we already have before it becomes even more unmanageable. This means permanent solutions, not more of the 400 plus Seattle encampment sweeps that have occurred since the state of emergency was declared.
It’s possible to have cities without a single person on the street. This can happen automatically because of extreme weather or inhospitable environments. But other cities similar to Seattle, like Salt Lake City, manage their homelessness by spending tax money on adequate urban housing for those who can’t afford their own. Yes, this is funded by high taxes, but if it’s a matter of citizens’ health and safety, it’s a need that should be met by our government.
Washington is one of only seven states that doesn’t have an income tax. Starting an income tax or prioritizing funds from our current taxes could provide the needed funding to better aid our homeless population. Already, Seattle City Council has approved spending $47 million to aid homelessness in 2016. If we could make the extra push now to put these people in permanent housing, we could save millions of dollars in the future by eliminating shelter maintenance, sanitation, and camp upkeep costs, including the cost of sweeps.
Furthermore, the last thing we want to do is encourage a resentful relationship between law enforcement and impoverished groups. Our government should be helping people who have mental illnesses or drug addictions get back on their feet, not upsetting the only life they are able to establish. Some of this conflict can be easily avoided by giving adequate warning before a sweep, which is at times a neglected step. The Sentinel sympathizes with the human need to find community when struggling. We believe that more gentle steps must be taken to practice adequate and thoughtful population regulation and create resources for those in need so that we are aiding, not alienating, Seattle’s homeless people.